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The great Indian rural vacation

Where the sharing economy meets rural development

A painted hut in Gujarat. Photos: Runa Mukherjee
A painted hut in Gujarat. Photos: Runa Mukherjee

Airbnb, the peer-to-peer network for rental accommodation, recently signed a partnership with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (Sewa), a non-profit, for rural home-stays in Gujarat.

When its director, Reema Nanavaty, shared the news with thousands of Sewa bens (sisters in Gujarati), some embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Valiben Parmar, a 65-year-old Sewa leader, was one of them. “We consider guests as our god, and letting them see our lifestyle, acquainting them with our village’s history while bringing home Lakshmi? Why should I say no to such a delightful chance?" says the lively, white-haired matriarch who earns a regular income developing self-help groups, extending loans and adding members to Sewa.

After consulting the village panchayat, Valiben began renovating her house in Mehsana district’s Vadu village. The new construction cost Rs26,000 and runs parallel to the old rooms, sharing a common wall. Valiben plans to keep the new rooms for herself. “We have renovated the old building and brought in new linen as well. Also, we have built a new toilet for our international guests," she explains.

Mayaben Patel, the 35-year-old radio jockey who runs Sewa’s Vali No Radio, a narrowcasting community radio, out of Ganeshpura in Mehsana district, is painting the ground floor of her Navapura house a bright pink. “My house is an old one, so we are doing some repair work. After the first few guests, we will have a better idea of how else we can make their experience better. But yes, TV and Wi-Fi will be the next facility that I plan for them," she says.

Mayaben, who has worked with Sewa for 17 years and was one of the first few bens to take to computer training, is more interested in the livelihoods that this partnership will open up. “My husband, who works in a ceramic factory, can work as a guide and show them around. The neighbours who have cars can work as drivers for a few days each month."

A village girl in the Rann of Kutch.

This is in keeping with the principles of Ela Bhatt, Sewa’s founder. Bhatt’s mantra of “100-mile communities" speaks of basic needs like food (including water), clothing, housing, healthcare, education and banking being available within a 100-mile radius of anyone and everyone.

For the initial stages, Sewa has chosen homes in three districts of Gujarat—Mehsana, Surendranagar and Patan—for listing on the website: these will be available for booking after 15 January. Later, the plan will be extended to other states.

The groundwork, however, has proven to be far more exciting than the paperwork.

Meetaben Parmar, a 45-year-old Sewa member, has spent the last month preparing the first floor of her house in Arsodiya village, Kalol taluka, in Gandhinagar district. One of the state’s more heavily industrialized areas, it sees a constant flurry of activity and official visits. Meetaben, assured of income, is now ready with two rooms, a kitchen, a washroom and a Western-style toilet. She has even put a TV in one of the rooms. And the balcony gets plenty of sunlight.

Valiben Parmar.

Apart from the livelihood possibilities, the women are happy at the thought of being able to “share a roti" with the guests. Shobhnaben, Valiben’s daughter-in-law, has been given clear instructions to cook a hearty meal in case the guest living with them wants to have lunch or dinner with them. “Because we are starting in winters, we plan to serve bajre ki roti and palak nu shaak (spinach sabzi) along with dal and rice. Of course, there will be a sweet like sukhdi or ladvo to go along with that," says Shobhnaben, even as her son, Bittu, who studies in class VII, smiles at all the excitement.

The sisters are ready for their guests. It’s over to the tourists now.

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